Art, not just for art’s sake

Your columnist cannot draw. Over 30 years ago he was taught by his grandmother to draw a seascape, with coconut trees, the odd bird and sand, which is about the only thing charcoal, pastels, pencil or watercolours in hand can generate to date. There is also the enduring gap between what in his mind distinctly depicts a bird in flight against a setting sun, and what for many others, an indeterminate dark blob signifies in the middle of an orange splotch, but is this not the basis of all good art? To be truly understood as an artist is almost an admission of abject failure to be good one.

But there is a more serious point to this column. Some months ago, Saskia Fernando Gallery invited your columnist to curate an art exhibition. Taking up the challenge, the past months have resulted in fascinating insights into the process of artistic creation, creative collaboration and the translation of complex subject matter into aesthetically pleasing visual forms. Your columnist’s interest in and experience of curation stems from his online work, creating and framing multi-media content across a diverse range of web, Internet and mobile platforms as well as moderating tens of thousands of comments over six years. His interest in an engaging and political aesthetic stems from dabbling in how the visual (from photography to cartoons, from memes to infographics) can almost always tell a better story than the purely textual. Based on this experience, why art stands a better chance of exploring some of our hardest contemporary issues and challenges is because the journalism of words alone has so little currency. We read only what is convenient, and that too with what a Microsoft researcher some years ago called ‘continuous partial attention’ – a focus not entirely devoted to any one thing at any one time. The result is a fractured understanding of context and location. This is a tough nut to crack, because the more didactic and prescriptive one gets, the more it risks alienation and disengagement.

‘Mediated’, which opens on the 23rd of this month in Colombo, pairs four subject matter experts with three artists and a professional architect. Each of the subject matter experts are widely published, but have never worked with artists or for that matter, recognised art as a medium through which to communicate their ideas. Each of the artists are well known, but have never focussed on the hard issues presented to them and in the manner they were asked to. The one architect involved had never worked before on the representation of power relations in a State through a plan drawing. The exhibition was also an experiment in pairing original thought with creative expression – making an informed guess as to which combination of individuals would result in the most thought-provoking art. Mediated is really a work in progress. If one chooses to read into the art, and in some cases, literally read what is embedded in the art, there will be visual pathways to learn more. Even from a distance however, one won’t be able to escape from or ignore fully an aesthetic deeply shaped by the content it is derived from. How, and how far one chooses to engage remains a personal choice. The idea was to foster interest in vital issues amongst those in and around Colombo who could afford to give a damn, not generate greater resistance to critical subject matter.

Can art engage those otherwise uninterested in vital social and political issues by creatively depicting hard data and theory? How would power sharing look through an architect’s eyes? How would a graphic designer see youth unemployment? How would a DJ and visual artist see Sinhala and Tamil perceptions on peace and democracy? How would a celebrated artist depict religious tension? ‘Mediated’ reflects some of the most pressing socio-political and cultural challenges today through a new aesthetic, anchored to information we may already, at least in passing, know yet choose to largely ignore and act upon. It is an experiment as an exhibition, to see how far complex issues can be communicated through different forms. Above all, it is an invitation to see, observe and engage. As noted in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue,

The subversive element to ‘Mediated’ stems precisely from an aesthetic that is hopefully, to most who will frequent the gallery, pleasing. Like that famous photo from Vietnam of the naked girl child running away from napalm, an aesthetic carries its own power to question, unsettle and critique. Through the art of Mediated and its source material, I hope you are compelled to ask why, and perhaps, as George Bernard Shaw would venture to suggest, see things that never were and ask why not.

I believe the answers, and there isn’t just one, will enrich us all.

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Published in the print edition of The Nation newspaper, 19 August 2012.

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